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Come the Revolution

The in-joke at Revolution, the chain of vodka bars that’s sweeping through the North-west of England and beyond, is that Roy Ellis, its 37-year-old managing director, is quite possibly “the hardest man in the world”. He finds this image hysterically funny, but sees no reason why he should do anything to dispel it.

He’s certainly one of the bravest men in the world, being a card-carrying Liverpool FC supporter in a company whose heartland is in Greater Manchester. With his business partner, Neil Macleod, Ellis has built a pub company – Inventive Leisure – which is successful by anyone’s standards, but it’s a company in which the mostly 20-something managers feel they can “have a scrap” with one of the directors whenever they feel like having a go. It’s all good-natured boisterousness, you understand, but such is the relaxed company culture that Ellis and Macleod have sought to maintain since the early days.

With his cropped hair and cleft chin, Ellis does resemble a boxer, but crucially, with his straight nose and clean-cut features, he looks like a boxer who’s never been hit. He looks like a fighter who’s never been tempted to box above his own weight and who has always sought to compete on his own terms. This is precisely how the Revolution chain has managed to grow at such an astonishing rate: by avoiding head-to-head competition with the big boys like Bass or Scottish & Newcastle.

It has been company policy to buy venues in what Ellis calls “off-pitch” locations, rather than pay enormous rents to be on the high streets. “Analysts might say, instead of owning one bar, rent two – but we would rather own one, because we’re looking at the longer term,” says Ellis. “We feel much more comfortable owning the freehold and knowing that we won’t face massive rent increases just because everyone else has round us. We can buy a building for around £300,000 and the £25,000 interest we pay on the bank loan to acquire the freehold is about the same as rent would be.”

Inventive Leisure was launched with £105,000 in 1991 with the opening of Chester Moonshine’s in Ashton-under-Lyne. The concept was simple: to introduce what Ellis describes as “city-centre standards” of service to a place where you would not expect to find them. Chester’s was a success, and over the next four years the company expanded to include the nightclubs, Loveshack and Sparx, and a live music venue. Ashton-under-Lyne was rocking.

John McDonald, formerly a food and beverage specialist with Crest Hotels, joined the company in 1992, adding his hotel experience to the volatile Ellis-Macleod mix. Before launching Inventive Leisure, Macleod had also worked in hotel management with Rank and the Savoy group, while Ellis had specialised in food and beverage operations and development with Bass before moving on to hotel consultancy work with Pannell Kerr Forster Associates.

Unique selling point

Ellis, Macleod and McDonald recognised that they were the owners of a rather mixed bag of outlets, so they put their heads together to find their own unique selling point to build the business. They hit pay dirt with the discovery that vodka, the ultimate mixer, is most profitable when mixed with students. Since the launch of the first bar in Manchester’s Oxford Street in 1996, Revolution has been peddling what Ellis describes as “lived-in trendy” rather than “cutting-edge cool”. And students in particular have been lapping it up, appreciating the relaxed, funky ambience of the bars.

No two Revolutions are the same, but they all bear the signature design features of wooden floors, irregular but comfortable furniture, Eastern Bloc artwork and thick, red velvet curtains. Maybe it taps into the same student penchant as did Che Guevara posters in the 1960s and 1970s.

“We were very impressed with the Irish-bar explosion, mostly because it struck us that a really well done Irish bar isn’t really a theme bar,” says Ellis. “We felt they were genuine bars when you went into them.” As far as Inventive Leisure was concerned, a good Irish bar had the complete package: the look, the name, the identity, the food, the music and the product, namely Guinness.

They had seen vodka, the product they were to adopt as their own, working well in other bars but decided to do it better. “We agreed the minimum number of flavours we were going to have would be 30, and we set about creating them to a really high standard,” says Ellis. “We decided we would only use Absolut vodka and we wouldn’t cut any of the corners we had seen others cutting – like plopping a packet of Polos into a bottle and calling it mint vodka.”

Today, Revolution produces about 1,000 bottles of flavoured vodka a week at its Oldham bottling line. As well as the flavoured shots, Revolution bars also offer 60 premium vodka brands, vodka martinis and vodka cocktail jugs.

But what would they do in the unlikely event that vodka suddenly became unfashionable and rum and tequila moved centre stage? “Well, vodka accounts for about 28% of our sales at the moment,” says Ellis. “The average sale in our bars is about £17,000 a week, so we’d be down to about £13,000 a week if we sold no vodka.” Not much of a hardship, then, for such a resilient company.

It’s expected that Revolution will be the main engine for growth – vodka-fuelled – but the company has more than one string to its bow. In order to take full advantage of the premises it already owns, Inventive Leisure is currently launching its first two Camel Clubs – one in Huddersfield and one in the rooms above an existing Revolution bar in Liverpool. “These are late-night drinking bars or nightclubs with a North African look and feel. They’ll have separate access and separate licences from the rest of the building,” Ellis explains.

Exporting the Revolution

This year, Inventive Leisure made £1.4m profit on turnover of £8.7m, and it’s beginning to look beyond its native hunting grounds. “We’ve got 12 Revolutions now on a T-shape from Liverpool across to Leeds and down to Nottingham,” Ellis explains. “Our plans are to have a total of 50 Revolutions within three years.”

Bars are about to be opened in Leicester and Sheffield, and the first Revolution in Scotland will open soon in Glasgow. “In the South of England we have taken on a guy called Chris Williams,” says Ellis. “He does a lot of travelling round, looking for properties for us. We’re close to finalising a deal in Brighton, which will be our first Revolution in the South, and we have also got a deal pretty much signed up in Bristol.”

It’s very important to Ellis and the other masterminds behind Revolution that the company never loses its somewhat maverick approach and relaxed management style. I asked Ellis, how many Revolutions can you have before it begins to feel like… “a nasty chain?” he interrupted. “I guess around 100, if we want to keep it feeling independent,” he replied.

In engineering circles RPM stands for revolutions per minute. In the bar business it could soon stand for Revolutions per month.

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